BRUSSELS – European Union leaders on Friday congratulated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on his sweeping election victory amid optimism that his clear majority should finally allow him to push the long-stalled Brexit divorce deal through a reluctant parliament and end years of political wrangling.
But even as the Brexit dust begins to settle, leaders warned that a huge challenge lies ahead in trying to secure a trade agreement between Europe and the U.K. in just 11 months. Most pacts take years to conclude and the lack of time means priorities will have to be set.
“It’s not only about a trade agreement but also speaking about education ... about transport, about fisheries, about sectorial questions,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the meeting in Brussels. "Many, many other fields are in the portfolio to be negotiated.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that concluding an agreement on future ties will be “very complicated" and that “what will matter above all is that we work very quickly and precisely.”
Britain is scheduled to leave on Jan. 31. It’s the first time that a country will leave the world’s biggest trading bloc. Though many EU leaders are relieved that the Brexit saga is finally coming to an end, more than three years after Britons voted to leave, just as many are saddened at the departure of such a heavyweight member state.
The sense of relief was evident among European business groups, too, though it was tinged with some regret. The uncertainty over Britain's future was a big business concern and some companies have shifted operations out of the U.K. Questions remain over the future relationship after Brexit and whether tariff-free trade between the U.K. and the EU will continue after a departure transition period expires at the end of 2020.
"My hope is that the U.K. remains an ally, friend and extremely close partner," said French President Emmanuel Macron. “But on the condition that we manage to define the rules for a loyal relationship. If there is no regulatory convergence, we will not be able to conclude an ambitious trade agreement.”
Joachim Lang, chief executive of the Federation of German Industries, said Friday that no German company wants Brexit but “our companies are breathing a sigh of relief that there is finally a mandate to accept the withdrawal agreement.”
When Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016, there were fears that it could lead to other departures. However, those fears have dissipated as the process has been so politically divisive — two U.K. elections were held over it — and expensive.
Though the pathway to Britain's departure by Jan. 31 is reasonably clear, the future relationship between the country and the EU is not. Discussions on that can only begin after Britain formally leaves. The EU has already said that its main Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will lead those talks.
After congratulating Johnson on his victory, new EU Council President Charles Michel said that “we expect as soon as possible the vote by the British parliament on the withdrawal agreement.”
“We are ready," he said. “The European Union will negotiate in order to have close cooperation in the future with the U.K.”
But ultimately, the Brexit divorce negotiations may yet prove to be the easy part. Asked whether it is possible to strike a trade deal in under a year, Michel said: “it is not my intention to predict based on the experience of the past.”
The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry said that Britain has slipped from Germany’s No. 5 trading partner to No. 7 since it voted to leave the EU in 2016. Its chairman, Eric Schweitzer, said German companies in Britain are “restrained in their investment and employment plans” because of uncertainty over the future.
Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.